Showing posts from April, 2009

The Continuing Responsibility of North-West Theologians in Global Christianity -- Sightings

On Monday Martin Marty's Sightings contribution focused on the changing demographics of Christianity, one that has pushed the demographic center to the South and to the East. That being said, John Stackhouse offers a follow-up that reminds us that as far as theological work/training the center remains in the North-West and will remain there for some time. In large part that is due to the simple fact that the majority of theological schools and active theologians are in the North-West (that is North America and Western Europe). Thus, as Stackhouse concludes, these theologians continue to have a major responsibility for the church's life.

Take a look and give your thoughts.


Sightings 4/30/09The Continuing Responsibility of North-West Theologians in Global Christianity --John G. Stackhouse, Jr.As Martin Marty’s pointed out in this past Monday’s Sightings, “everyone knows” nowadays that Christian Europe is long over, and Ch…

The Demise of the GOP?

I grew up Republican. My parents were active in the local party apparatus. My father even had a weekly radio program broadcast in Siskiyou County (California). I expect the parents of most of my friends were Republicans as well -- at least in the 1960s. Back then there still remained a strong centrist portion of the party. Nelson Rockefeller, Edward Brooke, Mark Hatfield, Gerald Ford, etc. This was the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Indeed, this was the party of Teddy Roosevelt -- a key Progressive politician of the early 20th century. It was the party through which African Americans first gained access to the political system.

I long ago left the GOP (back when I was a student at an Evangelical seminary). I did so because I had begun to realize that the modern GOP was changing, that it was becoming narrower and focused on just a couple of social issues, plus the policy of cutting taxes for the wealthy. The defeat of Lincoln Chaffee in Rhode Island (at th…

What's Evangelicalism?

I will continue my attempts to reflect on evangelicalism by starting with the opening sentence of my article on evangelicalism for the Stone-Campbell Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2004). I write: Evangelical: Term used to identify conservative Protestants who distinguished themselves from fundamentalism in the mid-twentieth century.
Well, I think I wrote that -- it's possible that the editors added that in! From there I note that originally the term was used to designate Protestantism as a whole, noting its roots in the Greek euangelion (good news). I also note that in 19th century America the term continued to be used to identify Protestants in contrast to Catholics and new religious movements such as the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists. It wasn't really until the mid-twentieth century that the term came to be used in a more restricted party designation -- focusing not only on Protestantism, but more specifically conservative Protestantism. Thus, when I use the term evangelical for…

100 DAYS

It's been 100 days of a historic presidency, not just because of Barack Obama's ethnicity, but also because of the context in which he has taken office. We are in a deep recession that has put the nation's financial situation on a precipice. We have two wars that confront him and us. There are challenges to our nation's moral authority -- seen in the release of memos that demonstrate beyond a shadow of doubt that we were engaged in torture. Its not that the victims were somehow good people and thus not worthy of such treatment, it is rather that engaging in torture goes against the very principles upon which the nation was founded (though we have never fully lived up to those principles -- considering that many of the founding fathers were themselves slave owners). Connected to the former is our national reputation in general, one that has been torn to shreds in recent years.

So, what do we make of these past 100 days? In many ways it's too early to tell, especially…

Defining Evangelical

It appears that we have a new topic line, how to define evangelical. Is it a politically tinged term? Is it a term of theological narrowness? The reality is, there are many different definitions. Consider the title of a book edited by Donald Dayton and Robert K. Johnston -- The Variety of American Evangelicalism. Originally and IVP book, it's now published by the University of Tennessee Press.

Don Dayton has made a career out of challenging the definition of this word. He believes that Reformed theologians have gotten too much control over the term, and he wants to add in Wesleyan and Pentecostal variations. The reality is, there are many definitions.

So, I begin with Karl Barth, a "Neo-Orthodox" theologian of the previous century. Barth published a book late in life called Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 1963). Consider this definition of evangelical theology:

The qualifying attribute "evangelical" recalls both the New Testament and at …

Finding that Place in the Middle

I'm back from a few days respite -- if you can call a fairly intensive Disciples Michigan Clergy Retreat a respite. Going on a retreat like this isn't necessarily relaxing, but it is both informative and empowering. This was my first Michigan retreat, and many of the clergy I met were unknown to me prior to this event.

It was an interesting conversation, led by fellow Michigan clergy -- no special speaker this year. Our topics were worship and local missions, and the conversation at times go heated (not angry, just intense). We were white and African American, women and men, younger and older, active in ministry and retired, some more liberal and some more conservative. Since it was my first time, I didn't know all the players and their positions beforehand. I understand that the dynamics I noticed occur on a regular basis. There was diversity, and yet there was unity. We might not agree on every particular, but we granted each other the status of brother and siste…

Population Changes in Europe

Martin Marty is off to increasingly secular Europe, pondering as he does the demographic implications for religion in the region. More specifically what are the implications of demographic changes that may soon put the center of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere?

Sightings 4/27/09

Population Changes in Europe
-- Martin E. Marty

In hours I’ll be boarding a plane for secular Europe, in particular secular France, and most particularly, secular Paris. Mixing business and pleasure, I’ll be doing some accidental research, namely, observing and taking mental notes on areas familiar to me from past scholarship. One of the delights of travel and scholarly work and play is this: One can be surprised. My surpriser-in-advance this week is Martin Walker, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and director of the A. T. Kearney Global Business Policy Council. He publishes his startler in the Spring 2009 Wilson Quarterly. His goal: To shatter …

Room in the Middle

I'm reading a book published by Alban entitled Lost in the Middle (Alban, 2009), by Wesley Wildman and Stephen Garner. I'll comment more fully on the book and the points it makes at a later date, but I'd like us to consider what it means to live in the middle. The last time I asked the question about where people stood, the respondents generally took the discussion in a political rather than a theological direction. I think its important to note that one's politics and one's theology can be different.

So, today I want to pose a different question -- it's a question that the book poses as well: Can one be both liberal and evangelical?

The authors of the book note, rightly so, that while liberal and conservative may be opposites, liberal and evangelical need not be. Going back in history, Charles A. Briggs, a biblical scholar at Union Seminary, who was defrocked for heresy because he engaged in historical critical study, was still in his profession of fait…

Draft Day

Well, as I take a break in the midst of sermon writing, I thought I'd consider the ramifications of draft day -- NFL draft day, that is.

I am a San Francisco 49er fan, though I've been known to be a Steeler fan, during 49er doldrums (like in the 1970s). Since the 49ers have struggled of late, I've had to turn to other teams (like the Steelers), but now I live in Detroit, home of the first 0-16 NFL team. Thus, even in my new home town, I'm without a truly great, or even a good football team to cheer on. It's kind of like the bad old days of the 1970s when the Oregon Ducks and the OSU Beavers were always really bad!

But today is draft day and hope always springs eternal on draft day -- though the Lions don't have the best track record when it comes to drafting. So, we'll see if Matt Stafford is the savior or not -- the Lions have inked him with the first pick. As a 49er fan I remember Alex Smith, a quarterback with a lot of promise, but apparently not a go…

The Blue Parakeet -- Review

THE BLUE PARAKEET: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, Co., 2008. 236 pp.

What are the blue parakeets that seem to always complicate our reading of the Bible? As you ponder that question, it may help to explain that Scot McKnight uses this metaphor to describe those passages of scripture and concepts that stick out and create awkward moments for people of faith. This is a book about biblical interpretation, written by a biblical scholar for a lay audience. Indeed, for what appears to be a relatively conservative evangelical audience.

The central question that McKnight lays out has to do with the way in which we pick and choose texts to embrace and use. At the root of the question is the methodology by which Christians discern not only the meaning of a text, but its modern application.

“When we encounter the blue parakeets in the Bible or in the questions of others, whether we think of something as simple as the Sabbath or foot…

An FBI Agent Speaks to Torture Memos

Ali Soufan, a FBI agent who interrogated Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubayda using traditional (non-enhanced) methods, speaks out in a NY Times Op-Ed piece, about the use of those methods and their effectiveness. He notes that they were able to get good actionable intelligence, and that whatever intelligence that was supposedly gained by torture could have been gained using other methods.

He also points out that the CIA decision to use these methods put up a wall between CIA and FBI that made further interrogations and anti-terrorism efforts more difficult.

One of the worst consequences of the use of these harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the so-called Chinese wall between the C.I.A. and F.B.I., similar to the communications obstacles that prevented us from working together to stop the 9/11 attacks. Because the bureau would not employ these problematic techniques, our agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An F.B.I. colleague of mine wh…

Interpreting the Koran

There is a difference between words on paper and what they mean. That is, there is a process of discernment that allows us to read and understand those words. Thus, there is a difference between what it may say and how it may read.

In the Christian community we continue to debate, fight, argue over the meaning of the text, whether things should be taken literally or not, and whether what was then is what is now (this is a primary concern of Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet, Zondervan, 2008). At stake for many people is the authority of the text. There's a fear that if you don't interpret it in certain ways then it will lose value.

Well, if this is a concern within the Christian community, might this not also be an issue in the Muslim world? And, knowing that we're having such debates in the Christian community, debates that can affect behavior, perhaps we can be a bit more understanding of what might be happening in Islam. Nicholas Kristoff reports in his column …

Thoughtlessness and Torture

The revelation today regarding American use of torture (harsh interrogation methods) is that nobody seems to have looked into their origins or use. Looking for ways to get more information, they happened across a military agency that trains American pilots to withstand interrogations, and decided that these looked interesting. Thus, the plans began to be hatched. No one really bothered to ask if they worked, whether they were immoral, even their legality. Apparently no one bothered to look at the previous uses of water boarding -- and that we prosecuted Japanese soldiers for using it on our people.

In a series of high-level meetings in 2002, without a single dissent from cabinet members or lawmakers, the United States for the first time officially embraced the brutal methods of interrogation it had always condemned.This extraordinary consensus was possible, an examination by The New York Times shows, largely because no one involved — not the top two C.I.A. officials who we…

Where Do We Stand?

Martin Luther famously declared: "Here I stand, I can do no other." His statement was seen then and is seen now as a sort of line in the sand. Whether it's religion or politics (ore athletics), we often find ourselves in either/or situations. Or, I might better put it, others put us in that situation.

In this post Religious Right era, with the Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress for the first time since 1994, many Progressive Christians thought they would now have the ear of those in government -- and are disappointed by the people the new President is surrounding himself with. There are those within the liberal or Progressive Christian movement that could be described as purists. No compromise. You're fully on board, or not at all. There are others, apparently known as accommodationists that are willing to work across the lines.

As I listen to the debates and read the analysis, I wonder where I fit. There was a time, not all that long ag…

One Hundred Years of America -- Sightings

Martin Marty celebrates the centennial of the Jesuit produced magazine -- America. I'm not a reader, necessarily of the journal, but in Marty's post we get a sense of how the times have changed in Protestant/Catholic relations over the past century.


Sightings 4/20/09

One Hundred Years of America
-- Martin E. Marty

It is not hard to sight what I am sighting for Sightings this week, since its shiny gold “100 Years” cover is almost blinding. I am speaking of the centennial issue of America, one of the magazines on which many of us depend for comment on both Catholicism and a wider world. Fattened up by advertisements placed by religious orders and firms which appeal to Catholic interests— remember them?—and many letters of greetings from presidents and pope, this April13th issue boasts ninety-two pages. Since this column is not in the business of peddling, I’ll move on quickly from complimenting the general appearance, to an attempt to locate t…

Which Translation?

We've been talking here about the biblical canon, but let's take it another step. Which translation of the Bible should we use? Or, which translation does one think is best?

I'll confess up front my preference for the New Revised Standard Version. It blends a certain formalism with a flexibility that the text itself allows. Before I started using the NRSV, for some time I used the NIV, and before that the New American Standard Bible. One's choice in a translation will depend in part on one's theology or one's context. If you attend a church that uses the NRSV, you're probably more likely to use that translation than if you attend one where the NIV is generally used.

So, to get our conversation off, let me offer some definitions:


One of the most important questions facing the translator concerns how close one wants to get to the original literal reading. As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart ask, how far are we willing to go to brid…

Bridge over Troubled Water -- a little Gospel

As they say, there's a lot of water going under the bridge!

Commenter David (who attends my church) shared this version of Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Aretha Franklin. I'm familiar with the Simon and Garfunkel version -- Here Aretha puts her own spin -- enjoy.

Walking in Darkness

This morning I preached a sermon entitled "Walking in the Light," a sermon based on the day's lectionary text from the epistles -- 1 John 1:1-2:2. In that sermon I reflected on the idea that God is pure light, without any trace of darkness. Of course the contrast with God is us -- for unlike God we don't exist as pure light -- there is at least some darkness, or the propensity for darkness.

Consider verses 5-10 of this passage:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins …

The Furious Longing of God -- Review

THE FURIOUS LONGING OF GOD. By Brennan Manning, Foreword by Mark Batterson. Afterword by Claudia Mair Burney. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009. 141 pp.

In the closing chapter of this brief, even breezy, devotional book, Brennan Manning, who is by confession a former Franciscan and a recovering alcoholic, writes:

All that really matters is this: Have you experienced the furious longing of God or not? (p. 129).
The question sums up the message of the book – God has a furious longing to be in relationship with humanity. Therefore, am I ready to embrace God’s passionate longing to be in this relationship? This is a question that isn’t easily answered, for such ardor for union with humanity, might seem so consuming that one’s freedom might be lost. Yet, who doesn’t wish to be loved passionately, especially if the one who loves is God?

This book is composed of eleven brief chapters, the longest being a chapter on healing. After each of these chapters, Manning has provided t…

Thoughts on the Torture Memos

Like many Americans, I'm appalled at the immoral "legal" advice given by the Bush Administration's Office of Legal Council. I do think that the people who wrote these memos, and those who gave support to them in the Bush Administration need to be investigated. To this point I've heard nothing from the Obama Administration that rules out such investigations. What he has ruled out, and I think that he is probably correct in this matter, is to eliminate prosecutions of those who carried out these orders. Now, many will disagree, but I think that from what I'm hearing across the spectrum is that such prosecutions would further demoralize our intelligence community and likely hinder reform. I know some of my blogger friends will jump on me for saying this, but Obama is a smart politician and he's also very deliberate -- he has much on his plate and won't go there.

That being said, I think that we will likely see more actions in the days to come. I thi…

Canon Fodder

No, I didn't get my can(n)ons mixed up! I thought it might be a good title to tie up a conversation that I opened up to mixed results.

So, here are a few miscellaneous comments:

There has never been one official determination of the canon. The canonical lists that we have probably emerged as a response to Marcion,whose truncated canon was rejected as insufficient.If, as Robert Funk once said in a regional AAR session that a canon is merely a list determined by a publisher, then we could easily reconfigure our canons. His suggestion was that we eliminate Revelation. His reasoning was based more on how it is used today than its original merits. As for whether Revelation out to be in the canon, well it was one of the last texts accepted.
The Reformers chose to affirm the Hebrew canon rather than the Septuagint/Vulgate. They had their reasons, and whether right or wrong, tradition suggests that this is the appropriate version for the churchWhile the early church, including the New…

Torture Memos Released

The Obama Administration today released memos, ones that have been well discussed, written by members of the former Administration's Justice Department that gave the CIA permission to use interrogation methods that qualify as torture or near torture -- including water boarding. The President has made clear that he has banned these methods by executive order and released the memos to make clear what has happened. He has also stated that CIA operatives will not be prosecuted. Nothing in the statement by the President, however, rules out prosecuting those higher up in authority -- but we'll see.

Obama does say in his released statement that they were banned because they run counter to the moral values of our nation and undermine our moral authority as a nation:

My judgment on the content of these memos is a matter of record. In one of my very first acts as President, I prohibited the use of these interrogation techniques by the United States because they undermine our moral aut…

Judging the Canonization Process

I've always appreciated this statement by Kurt Aland, historian and biblical scholar, concerning the apparent arbitrariness and messiness of the canonization process:

The confusio hominum ("confusion of men") connected with the determination of the canon cannot be disputed by anyone who takes the trouble to look some into its history. But on the other hand, I would think, just as unmistakable is the providentia Dei ("providence of God"). Despite all the lack of principles, despite all the arbitrariness, despite all the errors--what the church has received in the New Testament stands on an incomparably higher level than all other early Christian literature. None of the Apostolic Fathers can even remotely compare with those of the New Testament. None of the so-called New Testament apocrypha can remotely be compared with what was accepted in the New Testament. It is characteristic that in the last generation, which brought to our attention either complete text…

Process of Canonization -- How We Got the New Testament

I can't give a detailed explanation of the canonization process, but perhaps what follows can be helpful in our conversation about biblical interpretation -- and why these books got in. I'm in agreement with Kurt Aland that whatever the process, the church got it right. There is a qualitative difference between the "accepted" books and those kept out.



1. The Growth of the "Apostolic" Literature.

The Christian Scriptures (New Testament) have their origins in oral traditions, such as the sayings of Jesus, that were passed on and eventually written down (the Gospels, Acts, and “Q.”). Others were of course letters that were passed through the churches. By the early 2nd century, much of what we know as the New Testament was being gathered into collections and used by church leaders. When written down, there was not the sense that these were sacred writings. Onl…

Tradition! Tradition!!

What should we make of tradition? What value does it have? Should we celebrate or forget the past?

Tradition, as Tevye sang in Fiddler in the Roof tells us where we belong -- so that there might be harmony . . . except . . .


Then consider Jason Byassee's thoughts here about Tevye's message!

Oh, and don't you love this song. One of the great all time musical scorers! Turn it up, enjoy, and pray a blessing on the Tsar -- that God will keep him far, far away!

Is American Christianity Dying?

If you read the headlines, you would think, that American Christianity is in a death spiral. Jon Meacham's cover article of Newsweek from last week declares the "end of Christian America." The recent ARIS survey says that the number of "no religion" has doubled in the last 20 years, while the percentage of self-identified Christians has dropped from 86 to 76 percent. In the 1950s Will Herberg could speak of America's religious life as Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. That would be more difficult to say today -- for many reasons. We can debate over whether this is a Christian nation or a Judeo-Christian nation -- the reality is, we are a predominantly Christian nation, where Roman Catholics form the largest denomination within the Christian community. Christian ideas and values influence American life in as much as Christianity has for the past 1500 years or so influenced the direction and development of Western Society. Since the majority of America…